Feeds

US robot carrier-jet contract announced

Top Gun soundtrack remix: Take my job away ...

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

The US Navy has finally chosen a builder for its new robot carrier plane demonstrator, awarding a $635m contract to Northrop Grumman.

Northrop, partnered with Lockheed, is expected to develop its existing X-47 drone for this purpose. This is an almost 20 tonne, 60-foot-wingspan stealth jet which will offer 3,500 nautical miles of range without inflight refuelling: double that of normal carrier aircraft.

The current Navy programme doesn't call for weapons to be carried, being intended merely to demonstrate that unmanned planes can operate from carriers, but the X-47 could carry ordnance with very little effort should the Navy ask.

Top Gun Tom Cruise

Take my job away... worrying days for navy pilots and their fans

Will the admirals ask, though? The USN is first and foremost a carrier navy, doubly so in these post-Cold-War days when an aircraft carrier is often the only relevant ship in a fleet, unless you want to get into cruise missiles. But armed forces are actually organisations of people, not technology, and the US Navy carrier culture is driven by the heroic - almost legendary - status of naval pilots in America.

Maverick would hardly have taken Kelly McGillis' breath away in Top Gun if his job had been programming flying robots. Richard Gere was supposed to be lifting Debra Winger up where she belonged in Officer and a Gentleman, not offering her a life on a tech campus. George Bush famously chose to pose for the media in a flightsuit on a carrier deck, not with a shirt pocket full of pens in the Las Vegas facility where the Predator drone pilots work.

The thing that makes carrier pilots special among their flying brethren - the reason why one hears it said, navy wings are gold and air force wings are lead - isn't air-to-air combat. That's probably a matter nowadays of press-button long-range missiles on those very rare occasions it occurs. You don't get much kudos, either, from the unglamorous business of airfreighting automated precision weapons to ground targets which can't answer back - "tank-plinking" as it was disparagingly known in the battles of 1991 and 2003.

Carrier pilots are special because they do arrested deck landings, one of the most difficult and dangerous aviation feats and almost the only one yet to be automated. A US navy pilot's most important statistic is how many arrested landings he has done at sea - how many "traps", with night-time and bad weather traps being a particular test of piloting mettle. But, to be honest, automating deck landing is only a matter of time and money. The money's now appeared; and this looks like the time.

As aviation analyst Bill Sweetman put it on the Ares blog at Aviation Week a little while ago:

"[Carrier drone] technology makes a night trap about as heroic as reprogramming the TiVo, and the [contract] winner will have the unenviable job of selling that fact to the Top Guns."

Will US admirals whose sense of self-worth is largely rooted around their trap numbers really take this programme beyond the demonstrator stage? US airforce generals who count their manhood in flight hours have conspicuously failed to do so with an equivalent land-based project. It took the CIA to jumpstart the Predator/Reaper flying kill-bot programme, by using a drone to blow away an al-Qaeda bigwig in 2002.

Interesting times, these, for pilots of every sort. ®

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

More from The Register

next story
Sysadmin Day 2014: Quick, there's still time to get the beers in
He walked over the broken glass, killed the thugs... and er... reconnected the cables*
VMware builds product executables on 50 Mac Minis
And goes to the Genius Bar for support
Auntie remains MYSTIFIED by that weekend BBC iPlayer and website outage
Still doing 'forensics' on the caching layer – Beeb digi wonk
Multipath TCP speeds up the internet so much that security breaks
Black Hat research says proposed protocol will bork network probes, flummox firewalls
Microsoft says 'weird things' can happen during Windows Server 2003 migrations
Fix coming for bug that makes Kerberos croak when you run two domain controllers
Cisco says network virtualisation won't pay off everywhere
Another sign of strain in the Borg/VMware relationship?
Forrester says Australia, not China, is next boom market for cloud
It's cloudy but fine down under, analyst says
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Maximize storage efficiency across the enterprise
The HP StoreOnce backup solution offers highly flexible, centrally managed, and highly efficient data protection for any enterprise.